A History of St Teilo’s Church, Bishopston

St Teilo’s is situated on a slope above the stream in the secluded Bishopston valley which can be followed to the coast at Pwll Du Bay. The church occupies the site of an original ‘llan’ thought to be from AD 480 or 490 and was one of the earliest Christian places in Wales, associated with St Teilo and his monastery at Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire. The original Welsh name was Llandeilo Ferwallt – the church of St Teilo’s in Fairwood. After the Normans arrived, in AD 1130 the Pope settled the patronage of the church (uniquely in Gower) on the Bishop of Llandaff where it remained until 1920. The ‘Bishop’s town’, an Episcopal manor, with its Court Leet which lasted until 1923, became ‘Bishopston’.

The present building dates from the late C12 and early C13 with the battlement tower and battered (inclined) walls being the least altered. The chancel arch is pointed and (as is common in Gower churches) is assymetrical; the arch is nearer to the north side. Near the altar on the south wall of the chancel is a square piscine and nearby is a blocked up priest’s door with pointed arch. Between the windows is an aumbrey where the Sacrament can be held in readiness for the sick. On the south wall of the chancel is a mural tablet erected by subscription in memory of the learned Edward Davies, (1756 to 1831), Rector for 25 years and author of ‘Celtic Researches’, ‘The mythology and rites of the ancient Druids’ and other works. The tablet describes his excellent qualities. In 1836 and 1851 some restoration took place but apart from creating a gallery for choir and orchestra at the west end to accompany Evangelical worship, the church remained ‘barren’.

However a new Rector in 1891introduced much needed improvements. The mixed choir was transferred from the west gallery to new stalls in the chancel and simple choral services became the established rule. The nave is long and narrow. Free and unappropriated open pews, seating 150 were installed in 1896 and replaced the old-fashioned closed pews installed in 1836.

In 1927 further restoration work involved fixing a new roof and when the old plaster ceiling was taken down a fine C15 oak hammer beam roof was revealed. Two old windows of the C13 and C15 which had been blocked up for many years were opened up. New choir stalls, a new altar rail and pulpit, all of English oak, were erected and a fine two-manual organ with an oak organ loft and tower screen were installed in the west end of the church. The cost of the restoration amounted to £2,600, the great bulk of which was donated by parishioners. The west gallery still exists. The late Norman font, carved out of a single square block of limestone, probably local, stands on a circular stem and square base.

St Teilo’s has a wide variety of interesting lancets and windows, including some in the Early English style. The dominant three-light east window was the first stained glass window placed in the church as a memorial to the seven men of the parish who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-18. Since then very fine modern stained glass has been added to numerous other windows, given to the glory of God in memory of former members by local families and groups. Several of these were designed by local artist John Edwards formerly of the Stained Glass department at Swansea College of Art and the well known Celtic Studios. The most recent is the Millennium Window in 2000, depicting places of worship in the village and the river disappearing underground in Bishopston valley. The church plate (not kept in church) includes an Elizabethen silver chalice and a large silver C18 paten. The tower is massive and described of the English type embattled with a small pyramidal roof rising inside and a Welsh patterned corbel. It was most likely designed as a safe refuge for the villagers in case of not unusual sudden attacks.

The tower houses two bells, dated 1713 and 1714. On its west face is an1850 clockbell, sadly no longer working, but originally made by the famous Whitechapel bellfoundry in London which finally closed in 2017.

The parish of Bishopston contains the remains of two other ecclesiastical buildings. On the east side of Bishopston Valley nearer the sea at Backingstone are the remains of a hermitage or monk’s cell. On its east side is a narrow lancet window which suggests the building dates from the C13. Near St Peter’s well in the Caswell Valley, on the east boundary of the parish, is the ruin of the ancient St Peter’s Chapel which is also said to be C13.

Valerie Beynon
June 2021

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